Friday, March 28, 2014
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman and Ludo and the Star Horse by Mary Stewart
Writing for children is harder than it looks, so I especially appreciate it when an adult fiction author can also write successfully for kids. Take, for instance, Neil Gaiman. He writes epic fantasy for adults, he writes lushly illustrated abecedarians -- but his sweet spot, arguably, is spooky bildungsromans for the tween set (think Coraline and The Graveyard Book).
Include in that category his lesser-known 2008 book Odd and the Frost Giants.
There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about OatFG's plot; in fact, one of the things I liked best about it was its fodder for studying schema and making text-to-text connections, which is probably proof right there that you can take the English teacher out of the classroom but you can't make her stop being a nerd.
Odd is a 12-year-old Viking boy with a crippled leg (played in my internal cinema by a more subdued Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon). His woodcutter father dies and his mother remarries, leaving Odd unsure about his place in his family or his village. Then winter refuses to pass into spring ("The cold never bothered me anyway!") and Odd leaves home for his father's abandoned work cottage. An act of courage and compassion puts him in league with a trio of down-on-their-luck Norse gods (you'll have to forgive me if they were voiced by Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and especially Hopkins in my imagination) and sets him on his way from Midgard to Asgard and back again.
The title character is especially interesting. Writing sparely, in the style of an old legend, Gaiman leaves us with a lot of room to speculate on Odd's motivations and internal dialogue. Ultimately, OatFG almost feels like an origin story; I wouldn't be shocked to see Odd pop up as a fully-realized adult character in a future novel.
Beyond the more obvious connections, I found a book from my childhood tugging at my memory as I read OatFG. Mary Stewart -- another British author with the gift of writing for multiple audiences -- wrote three novels for kids, one of which is Ludo and the Star Horse (1974). There are many similarities between these two books beyond the identically formatted titles, one of which being remarkably similar discussions about the quasi-mystical art of woodcarving (IIRC; I didn't re-read LatSH for this review), and the primary one being that the young male protagonist must leave home and travel into the realm of mythology.
Ludo is a young Bavarian boy who, on a long winter night, pursues his beloved workhorse on the path of a shooting star. They end up in the House of Sagittarius and then must travel the entire zodiac, facing tests of character along the way. Readers who love mythology, who want to know more about the symbols behind the western zodiac, or who just love a good boy-and-his-horse story will find this book fascinating and, I hope, as memorable as I did. (I imagined that it would be impossible to track down, but it looks like you can get it starting at $4 on Amazon -- with updated cover art, thankfully! It's hard to sell kids on novels with Seventies-era cover art, regardless of the quality of the book's innards.)
Written for the upper elementary/lower middle school crowd, either or both of these books get my recommendation for the school or classroom library. Put them in the hands of young readers who are interested in mythology or just love a good, straightforward adventure story. And if you're a fan of the adult work of Gaiman and/or Stewart, don't miss out on these stories just because they're written for younger readers. They'll make for a pleasant, nostalgic afternoon's reading.
This review has been cross-posted at Did You Have Juice.