Sunday, July 6, 2008

Am I a Hufflepuff?

I just finished reading Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days. Based on an obscure Grimm tale, it's written in journal entries, jotted down by Dashti, a teenage Mucker (similar to the nomads of the Mongolian steppes - think yurts and yak milk) who is forced to become lady's maid to Saren, whose father is about to wall her up in a tower for 7 years thanks to Saren's refusal to marry a nasty lord. Dashti is stalwart, practical, brave, good-tempered, resourceful, warm-hearted, and witty - needless to say, she gets herself and the useless Saren out of any number of awful situations.

Any reader will root for Dashti from the beginning; she is an eminently likable heroine. More than just liking her, though, most readers will identify with her. She is the kind of person we all want to be, and while I was immersed in her tale, Dashti and I became indistinguishable. Blame it on the compelling first-person narrative or simple the Magic of Reading. Only when she showed her blind spot by turning honorably away from the man she loved did the spell break momentarily - she was so clearly being an idiot.

Now, I am no Dashti. Nor am I a Harry Potter, a Hermione, or in fact any kind of brave Gryffindor person. If I were at Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat would either put me in Hufflepuff (due to a certain meekness of soul) or Ravenclaw (after all, LAUSD's Sorting Hat put me in the Gifted program). No one would want to read about someone like me. I wouldn't want to read about someone like me!

And yet I've identified with the main character of most of the enthralling books I've read. They are generally just like me, only more inclined to be active and brave, and even when they are so good at magic, derring-do, or witty repartee that I can't quite make the leap, I can easily imagine being their faithful side-kick.

Some of my favorite books have been the ones in which the characters are people I want to befriend. Although I did feel I was part Piglet (meek, often afraid, but a good friend) and part Rabbit (efficient, bossy) with a little Kanga mixed in (common sense), the draw of the Pooh books was the 100 Acre Woods and its denizens - I wanted to live there. I also wanted to live down the street from Charlie Brown et al. Although Lucy would certainly boss me around, Schroeder would probably fall for me. I want to be one of the eccentric adults in Hardpan, where I could be alone for days or weeks on end and when I finally emerged, folks would merely nod in a friendly but not overly-curious manner. Those Eager books - I was the fifth child, always.

So I suppose there are two kinds of books - the sort that take you out of yourself and let you become someone else, doing things you'd never do in your regular humdrum existence, and the sort that make you feel that you're yet another character. One kind for escape, one kind for comfort.


  1. Oh, yes, books for escape and books for comfort. I need them all. We've talked, though, about children who tend to prefer one or the other -- often fantasy for the escapists and realistic fiction for those who like their books to be a little cozier. Not problem novels though; those seem to appeal to kids who use them almost as texts, providing information about worlds and situations they hope they never have to encounter in real life.

    What do you think?

  2. Yes, there are Lois McMaster Bujold's A and B readers.

    The A readers want books about kids leading lives much like their own - maybe in a different town or even a different country or century, but still, there are no dragons or magical objects or extreme battles between good and evil. Instead, the action centers around friends and family and everyday issues.

    B readers want books about anything but everyday things! They want to be pulled out of their own world and into something completely different. Somehow, exotic and extraordinary circumstances make it so much clearer what it means to be human.

    And then there are the Omnivores! We'll read anything, so long as it's good.