Thursday, February 21, 2013

Looking for the yellow brick road

Have you seen the trailers for Oz: The Great and Powerful? Some trailers look incredible, others look a little... worrisome. Nonetheless, I'm pleased to see people will travel by bubble. I feel that's important. Or maybe I just wish I could travel by bubble. That's probably it.

A couple of colleagues and I have lately been talking about all things Oz. Michelle Smith writes an excellent post on the topic here that I encourage you to read. We've been joking that ever since we started talking, Oz has been following us. The other day, Amazon recommended that I read Oz Reimagined. I'm not sure I've gotten passed the description of Jane Yolen's story, "What if Toto was dead and stuffed?" As I live with a small, black terrier, that description puts me out of sorts. We did discuss, however, the comments and the remarks about this collection being 'dark fantasy' and 'dystopian,' as one of the issues with Oz we've identified is the tendency now to go dystopic.

One of the reasons I became interested in the field of children's literature is that back in the 90s (clearly dating myself here), I read a lot of criticism and media about the dystopic trend in children's and young adult fiction. Since I'm sitting here in 2013 remarking upon it still, this is obviously a trend with staying power. However, I'm not the biggest fan, as anyone knows who has seen the kinds of books I set in my courses. I rarely engage with dystopian works.

My interest was really piqued, however, because so many of the authors and academics who applauded the rise of dystopian literature maintained that it was more 'real' and much better than Pollyanna, an example trotted out again and again.

Just let me stop them right there. Pollyanna is a book about an orphan who goes through multiple trials, deals with all sorts of emotionally broken people, is forced to face the prospect of a life without the ability to walk, and yet manages to somehow get through it all. The 'glad game' might seem twee, but I found the novels and film adaptations empowering as a kid. Not only did she overcome her own setbacks, but she kept reaching out to other people in need. Yet, she wasn't perfect. She didn't like her freckles, for a start, although I coveted them. She made mistakes, she sometimes put her foot in it and she often struggled to find the good. She still tried, though, and I felt that was important.

The problem I have with a lot of dystopian writing is that everything is bad, the heroes are very serious, and unhappiness seems to be a badge of honour. I find it disturbing that stories about horrific lives are regarded as more 'real'. Not everything is awful! And I rather like what Meg Cabot once wrote about 'trauma porn'. I agree with her. And I don't think we give enough credit to 'happy books.' Notice that we don't even have a very good term for them? They aren't utopian, some are romances, some are coming-of-age stories, but they're positive. They often tackle some dark topics, the heroes aren't always sunshine and rainbows, but they're positive.

I think that's why I love the musical version of Wicked. Two women become friends and although they take difficult routes, they both work to make a positive contribution in their own ways, respecting the other's choices. That's pretty powerful stuff to my mind. Plus, Glinda, for all her shoe-obsession and girliness, is allowed to be intelligent, too. One of the things I actually like about the Oz books is that witches can be good. They can wear pretty dresses and travel by bubble. A pair of cute shoes can be magical. And there is a yellow brick road that you can sing and dance down (okay, I'm taking about the film too!). There's a sense of hope in Oz that I think should always be retained.

Indeed, I was thinking this last evening as I walked my small, black terrier. A storm was brewing, but there was a great big colourful rainbow in the sky. It was kind of amazing.

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