Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Heroes return (Black Widow and Harry Potter) but these books are not the perfect experience

Stohl, Margaret (2016) Black Widow: Forever Red.  New York: Marvel

Image result for black widow forever red

Opening Lines:  Natasha Romanoff hated pierogies – but more than that, she hated lies.
Lying she was fine with.  Lying was a necessity, a tool of tradecraft.  It was being lied to that she hated, even if it was how she had been raised.
Everything Ivan used to say was a lie.

Ever since I first bought comic books at Argus Used Books Shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, there have been novelizations of the Marvel Superheroes.  I remember reading some of them, and remember some being good and some being not so good.  What seemed to make a difference often was whether the writer of the novelization seemed to have read at least as many of the comics as I had.  If they hadn’t, the book was usually missing some important links or characterization, or some aspect of the main character’s personality, or even about the world they lived in. 

Recently, Marvel has upped the ante.  They have managed to get some real giants of adolescent and YA literature to craft stories about their heroes (now household words after the terrifically popular series of Marvel movies.  Eoin Colfer has written about Iron Man, Shannon Hale about Squirrel Girl, and Margaret Stohl about Black Widow.  These are not graphic novels, they are regular text novels containing brand new stories. And sometimes it works. 

I am not sure what to tell you about Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow, Forever Red.  Stohl has done her homework and the storyline seems to fit well with the character.  The story has Natasha Romanoff (The Black Widow) shepherding two teenagers.  Ava is a homeless kid living in New York who was exposed to a strange experimental machine when she was a young child and seems to have gained reflexes, strategy, and tradecraft similar to what the Black Widow has.  Alex is living a comfortable suburban life, raised by a single mom.  But it turns out that he seems to have black widow-like reflexes too. 

And while the book is a fun action-adventure sort of a novel, if it has a problem, here it is—you don’t buy this book to read about the two junior widow kids.  You want to read about Natasha.  This book spends at least as much time on the two kids and often they seem to be the central focus of the book.  Their story is interesting, and the budding romance between them will also hold readers’ attentions – but it is supposed to be a story about Natasha.

Not much in the way of themes here – other than a kind of “Who am I” theme that draws connections between Black Widow and the kids throughout the book . There is certainly violence, a bit of vulgar language (though not much) and some suggested sexual intimacy between Alex and Ava, but nothing very explicit.  This would be a good one for a 7th through 12th grade classroom library, but I cannot imagine any class actually studying it and getting much out of it.

Rowling, J.K.; Tiffany, John; and Thorne, Jack (2016) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  New York:  Arthur Levine.

Image result for harry potter and the cursed child cover

Opening Lines:  King’s Cross.  A busy and crowded station.  Full of people trying to go somewhere.  Amongst the hustle and bustle, two large cages rattle on top of two laden trolleys.  They’re being pushed by two boys, James Potter and Albus Potter.  Their mother, Ginny follows after.  A thirty-seven year old man, Harry, has his daughter Lily on his shoulders.
ALBUS:  Dad, he keeps saying it.
Harry:  James, give it a rest.

Of course, this is the latest in the Harry Potter saga – or is it.  Presumably written by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne with editorial oversight by J.K. Rowling, the story follows the children of the heroes of the first seven books.  Specifically we meet Harry’s son Albus, who gets sorted into Slytherin house, and Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius, who meets Albus and forms a sort of friendship. 

I have talked to several other Harry Potter fans about this, including my own daughter, and though they all have read it, they all have some reservations.  The first reservation I inevitably hear may be the easier of the two to dismiss.  They will  inevitably say the writing just doesn’t sound like Rowling’s.  I detected several spell names which seemed to be theatrical puns rather than the Latinate incantations that Rowling prefers   And certainly our heroes, now recast as middle aged parents, seem to lack the energy and sharpness they had in the first seven books.  But we might respond that it doesn’t sound like Rowling because it probably wasn’t her that wrote it.  This seems like a purist’s complaint. 

The second complaint is harder to articulate, but I would argue is a more serious flaw of the book.  The relationship between Albus and Scorpio is ambiguous.  Are they really good friends, or is there a homosexual attraction between the two?  The book stops short of clarifying this, perhaps preferring that the reader decide for him or herself.  When I read it though, this ambiguity seemed to mess up both possibilities.  Their relationship seems a bit too hysterical to be a strong platonic friendship, but it seems too reserved to really be a gay relationship.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that so much of the theme and the plot hang on their relationship.  So it is very hard for the reader to see that motivations spring from a deep platonic relationship (as they did between Harry, Ron and Hermione, at least until Ron and Hermione became an item in the sixth book) because the relationship being shown doesn’t seem to be platonic.  But it also doesn’t seem to work as a gay relationship because without that relationship being able to develop in any real way, it too lacks depth.

None of this need concern teachers who are afraid of the book being challenged.  It is all open for interpretation and nothing is clear.  But that makes it a hard book to read.  Perhaps it is clearer in the stage production. 

At any rate, though it is certainly an imperfect book, Harry Potter fans will want to read it.  It might be a good addition to a high school language arts class library.