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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Getting Real

I’m as happy as the next person to enthusiastically recommend THE REAL BOY to adults and children for pleasure reading, but like Nina I have grave reservations about it as a Newbery book.  I’m hesitant to follow her mixed review with one of my own, especially because not many people have spoken up in favor of the book despite a strong showing during our October Nominations.  I do hope that people will add their voice in support because we are on the fence about whether or not to include it on the shortlist, and your comments could make all the difference.  As for me, I have reread the book, and taking Vicky Smith’s advice to heart, I’m going to try to make a fair and balanced assessment.

To my mind, the theme of this book is the most distinguished part of it.  It’s simple, but universal.  I love how the title alludes to PINOCCHIO, and the flip-flop narrative twist worked beautifully for me on both readings.  We don’t all have autism like Oscar, but we have all felt inadequate, abnormal, or unreal–and this book speaks powerfully to those fears and insecurities.  The sentence level writing is quite good, although I felt like it was superb in the beginning, and gradually petered out.  I’m not sure whether it actually did that, or whether I just became accustomed to the beautiful writing, or became so engrossed in the story that I stopped noticing the prose–but I had a similar experience with BREADCRUMBS.  If I felt like this book was slightly overwritten on the scene level, it’s such a prevalent problem that I sort of feel like the traffic cop who capriciously gives out tickets on a California highway during rush hour: everybody’s speeding, so what’s the big deal?  I’m not sure that you can convince me that the style is as distinguished as the theme, but if we discussed it long enough it would help me understand why you find the book most distinguished in this regard.  Moreover, I will add that, being a fantasy fan, I’m acutely aware that many a good fantasy is a quality piece of storytelling, but falls short in the areas of style and theme, so I can definitely appreciate how this one sets itself apart from other fantasies in these respects.

And there are some admirable storytelling qualities here–plot, character, and setting–that we will discuss momentarily, but first I must play Amy Farrah Fowler to your Sheldon Cooper and disabuse you of the notion that INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is the masterpiece that you think it is.  Among other things, the opening chapters lay out several mysteries that readers will track throughout the narrative: How does the magic work?  What happened to Wolf?  Where did Caleb go?  What is Oscar’s story?  These mysteries will yield to new ones: What kind of monster destroyed the glass house?  What plagues the City children?  In due time, all of these questions (and more) will be satisfactorily resolved–all, that is, but that very first one.  The system of magic in this book, as Nina mentioned already, remains vague, ambiguous, contradictory, and extremely frustrating for many seasoned genre readers.  The contract with the reader in this kind of fantasy/mystery book states that we will live with this confusion at the beginning of the story so long as the author gradually enlightens us by the end of it.

  • Why does the magic dwindle from wizards to sorcerers to magicians to magic smiths, and how is it that Caleb worked his way back up the ladder when others did not or could not?  Did he have more latent power, or was he just more clever and/or more skilled in his use of it?  And what exactly was his magic, anyway?
  • What is the duke’s role in perpetrating the system of apprentices?  Does he himself have magic?  If not, then how can he ascertain whether apprentices have magic, and what is it that apprentices do to demonstrate their abilities?  How did Callie slip past him?
  • Is magic fickle–or human nature?  The wizards seemed to use magic for good, but Oscar and Callie ultimately decide to destroy it because it’s bad.  Does the magic reside in people–or in the soil?  I understand how it goes from the wizard trees back into the soil, but why does it appear in new generations of people (and appear in a weakened form)?  If the root cause of the childrens’ sickness is the same then why are the symptoms so different?

These questions–and I took a whole page of notes; this is just a sample–make the world-building feel casual and sloppy, but for me the most egregious fault lies in Lord Cooper’s justification for wooden children.

“Caleb promised children who would never get sick,” he said, voice quiet.  ”Never suffer, never have any problems at all.  A boy got sick and died a few years ago.  It was horrible.  That wasn’t supposed to happen!”  Even at the words, his face darkened.  ”And this way, we could have what we wanted.  A boy and a girl, three years apart in age, and nothing could go wrong with them.”  He looked at Oscar and Callie, as if for approval.  ”We’d never have to see them suffer at all.  You want your children to have the best of everything–”

So . . . You love children and want them, but you also want to avoid suffering–so you opt for fake children?  R-i-i-i-i-g-h-t.  I could belabor all the absurd implications of this logic (Oscar and Callie find it quite puzzling, too), but  . . . you will be hard pressed to find a more specious piece of reasoning–except that there’s another doozy on the next page, one that explains why you, too, should get fake children.

“You see,” the lord explained, “everyone else has them.  You wouldn’t want your child to be the only one  who had flaws.  What would it be like for them?”

?!?!? 

Now, as I mentioned previously, this book has some real strengths when it comes to plot, character, and setting–and I’m not surprised that some people will find that the strengths of this book overcome its weaknesses, and I welcome those arguments in the comments below.  For me, however, these kinds of flaws are probably irredeemable.  I mentioned that one of the unofficial things that I look for in a Newbery book is being in the hands of a master storyteller.  When I get that sense, I can be persuaded to get behind a book, even if it’s not my cup of tea, and indeed that very thing happened last year with SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.  But I’m afraid that’s not the case with this book.

 

 

share save 171 16 Getting Real
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Leonard Kim says:

    Jonathan, clearly I mostly agree with you and Nina about this book. However, I have to say that your making me think about the city parents’ motivations is actually pushing me more in favor of it. The idea of parents seeking children who never get sick is an old science fiction trope and certainly topical today with the advance of genetic science. I think this book simply comes up with a magical analogy (again following Destinee’s Sutton’s idea that this book’s strength is putting a new twist on familiar concepts by putting them in a fantasy setting.) Maybe the fact that the children are wood makes it a little off-putting, but I think that’s appropriate. As for the idea of a children’s “arms race”, isn’t that also very topical? I’m always seeing articles about today’s children-of-wealth getting expensive test prep for pre-school entrance exams and elementary school kids being given prescription medicine to boost academic performance. It seems ludicrous, but clearly there can be pressure on affluent parents to do “unnatural” things to keep up, and again I think this book extrapolates this in an appropriately creepy way (“if you accept this wooden child, he/she will be guaranteed admission to the exclusive, top preschool of your choice!”)

    That said, though I assume Anne Ursu wrote the book she wanted to, I’m 100% in agreement that at least the way I define it, the book didn’t “feel” masterful. I’m having trouble figuring out whether that’s a subjective feeling I should give up per Vicky Smith (or maybe it’s a generational thing?), or whether it’s objective enough that you could convince someone of this.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Leonard, I’m either unfamiliar with this science fiction trope you mention, or I’m just momentarily blanking on examples. One that does come to mind is THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by Mary Pearson (probably because I reviewed the entire trilogy for Horn Book, including the last volume earlier this year). In that case, the parents use biotech on Jenna only because she cannot be saved any other way, but the parents never decide she’s such an improvement that they want to forego natural children afterwards. Can you tell me some of the examples you’re thinking of?

      I was initially thinking we could use fairy tale tropes to explain the situation because children are often dispensible and disposable in some tales (think “Cinderella” or “Hansel and Gretel”), but as I mentioned those don’t seem quite as applicable here because Lord Cooper (and presumably the others) *love* and *want* their children. I was also thinking that children might relate more to this viewpoint, that they may actually feel dispensible and disposable, tapping into the emotional trappings of the argument rather than the logic itself, and I believe this is what Nina said when she questioned whether her viewpoint was too mature. But Ursu actually uses Oscar and Callie as foils to Lord Cooper’s thinking both times. Then, too, fairy tales often suffer from these kind of logical failures, but fairy tales are also only a few pages long, unlike a novel where we have a different standard for character motivation.

      The reason for my earlier BIG BANG THEORY analogy is that this whole story hinges on the motivation/justification for having wooden children. If the Shining People do not initiate this trend, then the rest of the novel doesn’t have a reason to exist. Similarly, the magic, like Indiana Jones, seems to have no bearing on the story, not that a book cannot be tremendously distinguished without a key literary element. Ursu seems more interested in the thematic implications of magic. Whenever Malcolm enters the story, for example, there’s always some philosophical discussion that equates magic with power. She seems less interested in magic as a plot device, but as a genre reader that is of supreme importance to me, so I spent some time thinking of an intellectual rationale for her treatment of magic.

      Could we think of the magic as a MacGuffin? From Wikipedia–

      “In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person. However, a MacGuffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot.”

      Hmmm, it’s not the character so much pursuing a knowledge of the rules, bounds, and limitations as the reader, but it kind of fits–especially since we can include magic as one of those abstract things. I’m halfway to convincing myself, but then–

      “The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and then declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. It may come back into play at the climax of the story, but sometimes the MacGuffin is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively referred to as plot coupons.”

      My problem with applying this kind of defense, then, to THE REAL BOY is that because it’s a mystery rather than a thriller, the magic actually becomes more important rather than less important as the narrative progresses because the reader is waiting to see how the puzzle pieces fit together. So I ultimately have to reject this rationale, too.

      I’m sure it must seem as if I’m gleefully picking this book apart, but I really am looking for an intellectual rationale to make the book work for me, something that moves beyond I-loved-this-book-so-much-that-it-will-win-the-Medal-on-the-strength-of-my-love-alone kind of rationale.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Jonathan, I wasn’t being too clear. Parents not wanting sick kids may not specifically be a common science fiction trope, but the idea of “engineered” kids and the societal impact surely is, especially in dystopias, though perhaps not so much in children’s books. It goes back a long way, Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD, for example. The parents’ motivations in the movie GATTACA can easily be compared to those in THE REAL BOY, I think. Among widely-known children’s books, an imperfect comparison might be made to THE GIVER where reproductive control is certainly a major component in that society’s elimination of pain and suffering but “human” qualities are suppressed. It’s been a long time since I’ve read widely in science fiction, but if I google genetic engineering or eugenics in science fiction, it does seem a standard topic including in very popular treatments like Star Trek.

      • Amanda says:

        “I was initially thinking we could use fairy tale tropes to explain the situation because children are often dispensible and disposable in some tales (think “Cinderella” or “Hansel and Gretel”), but as I mentioned those don’t seem quite as applicable here because Lord Cooper (and presumably the others) *love* and *want* their children.”

        I think you’re looking at the wrong fairy tales here. I would be more likely to compare the adults in the village to the parents of “Cinderella” or “Hansel and Gretel” – they’re the adults who leave a boy alone in the shop where his master has just been killed, or bring back someone he lived with every day in a sack, or use him simply as a tool to assist their work. The shining people are more like the adults of the Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Thumbelina, and even Geppetto – adults who desperately wanted a child but didn’t always get what they bargained for.

        Also, Lord Cooper’s childish arguments fit with an entire city of people who are sheltered and spoiled. He acts like a brat instead of an adult because that’s what the shining people have become while the magic is abused into non-existence. Although our main characters take the actions they do at the end, the magic had clearly been overused for a long time. The people of the city feel entitled to magic solutions to their every wish or whim. Everything glitters around them, so can it be surprising that the logic of children from the Barrow foils their circular view that everything around them should be perfect because everything around them is always perfect?

  2. I haven’t done my second reading of THE REAL BOY, so I’m not as armed as I would like to be in defending it.

    That said…

    I agree with everything Leonard said about the justifications for the fake children. That whole idea resonated with me as a parent, and I think it expresses the bittersweet nature of parenthood. We bring new people into the world, knowing that they’ll suffer and die. But if they didn’t, they would be lacking a crucial element (probably _the_ crucial element) of human nature. That goes back to the theme (which I agree is distinguished), but I think it justifies the actions of the city parents too.

    It was my impression that the duke actually has no idea which apprentices have magic – that he’s a fraud. That’s why Callie was able to slip past. I could have misread that, though.

    In fact, I think a lot of what’s being passed off as magic at this point is fakery. Again, I could be misreading or misremembering that, but it felt like the charms and things that Caleb was selling were just charlatanery or placebos.

    I don’t know why Caleb is able to work real magic where others can’t, but presumable he’s done the studying necessary to take advantages of the traces of magic that are still available, while everyone else is just coasting.

    I did feel like there were some inconsistencies or at least some vagueness about the way the magic worked (Sam disagrees), but that seems incidental in a book like this. It’s not Megan Whalen Turner, where the air-tightness of the plotting is the whole point. I agree with you that this is a theme and style book, and it didn’t bother me that the magic wasn’t perfectly explained.

    And I do think the style is distinguished. Ursu is more in control of her sentences here than she was in BREADCRUMBS, which I love but which did veer off on some flowery and ultimately confusing tangents. The style fades more into the background in THE REAL BOY, but it’s still quietly beautiful.

  3. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I haven’t yet done the close re-reading with notes that Jonathan has, so I’m relieved to see my concerns plotted out in his post. In my post I mentioned that I felt the wooden children were not properly foreshadowed…and Mark and Jonathan quickly pointed out that they were, technically, in the prose. But it was the motivation, as Jonathan alludes to, that was missing for me. It’s partly that I don’t believe the parent’s motivation. Mostly, I just don’t feel I’m on any footing, as a reader, with the magical elements of this world

    Rachael, I have to disagree that the “air-tightness of the plotting” isn’t “the whole point” here. Surely this is a different kind of fantasy than Turner’s, and I wouldn’t really compare them. But a fantasy *depends* on air-tightness: the author creates a world that is not is own, and is supposed to make us believe it is real. The plot is as responsible, if not more, than the setting and characterization, in carrying that out. Urus’s plot, however, is a “tell not show” kind of plot. Read the quote from Lord Cooper that Jonathan cites above. He says in two sentences something we’re supposed to just swallow. But I can’t, because I haven’t been shown a world, a situation, and people, that would believably think this way. I’m sure we can map out, in Ursu’s prose, where she tries to make us believe. But Lord Cooper, to me, sounds like he is made of wood himself. The story is thin, despite the surface richness.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Rachael, I still categorically reject the rationale for the fake children. Of course, we worry about our children, but pain and suffering is a part of the human experience and is necessary for individual growth. I would not deny my child those painful experiences, as much grief as it may cause both of us. So I can unequivocally state that I have no interest in “wooden” children. Moreoever, I don’t think you do either, or Betsy Bird, or Mark Flowers, or anybody else who’s had glowingly positive things to say about the book. But on the off chance that you did feel that way, I would never feel like I needed wooden children to keep up with you and your fake ones. You yourself seem to acknowledge this, but then try to make it sound like this ties back into the theme when in fact it is an utter rejection of it. Because this kind of rationale for fake children says that imperfections are unacceptable. Sickness is unacceptable. Death is unacceptable. Autism is unacceptable. When in fact all of these things are part of the grand scheme of things.

    I’m not sure that I want to get bogged down in a point-by-point analysis of the magic (otherwise I would have written *all* of my notes). You raise some good points in answer to some of my specific queries (but for each answer I could give you three more questions). Rather, I’m going to respond with a more general statement. I think this kind of fuzzy magic was better suited to BREADCRUMBS, but I think THE REAL BOY is written as a different kind of fantasy book, and I would argue that when Ursu chose to use the trappings of epic high fantasy and mystery plotting then she created a different set of expectations, and it’s entirely fair to judge her by the standards of those genres. It’s entirely fair to compare this book to, say, JINX or THE RITHMATIST, and I think when you do you will more clearly see where the world-building kind of falls apart.

    • I think we’re going to agree to disagree about this, but I am not bothered by the lack of definition on some of the magic based purely on how firmly the book stays in Oscar’s point of view. He has no idea how it works. I’m not sure we should either.

      This is a philosophical difference, probably, and it isn’t going to be hammered out in a comment thread, but I still hold that the parents’ rationale makes sense. From the eugenics movement of the late 1800s, to the Nazis, to the FLDS church and numerous other cults, history is full of parents who certainly loved their children, but who wanted to love a certain kind of children. I think it’s 100% plausible, and I think that to categorically deny that doesn’t make sense based on the sad history of humanity.

      But that’s just my two cents ^_^

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Sam, of course, you are not bothered by the magic system, and you are obviously not alone (just as I am obviously not alone in my enjoyment of the vapor-thin plot of THE THING ABOUT LUCK :-) ). Clearly, THE REAL BOY already speaks powerfully to a certain audience, but that audience could have been even bigger and more enthusiastic if Ursu had taken the care to build a world that made a little bit more sense. There are currently no rules, boundaries, or limitations on the magic: It can be in people; It can be in the soil; It has a mind and will of its own; It’s subject to the people who can bend it to their whim; It doesn’t like cats; it’s whatever it needs to be at any given moment in the story. That’s not the way most fantasy novels work. I don’t think Oscar’s viewpoint can be used to excuse the fact that we never come to a greater degree of enlightenment about more specific parameters of the magic. After all, he is privy to Caleb’s library, and it’s the convenient source of most of his knowledge about the history and magic of Aletheia. Malcolm who waxes philosphical about the abuses of magic could have been used in a greater expository role.

        PRINCESS ACADEMY is a good comparison from the Newbery canon for THE REAL BOY because it has the quasi-fairy tale thing going on, but it also has some of the trappings of epic high fantasy, too. In contrast, however, magic does hardly anything in Miri’s world. In fact, there’s really only the one thing: the ability to use quarry-speech. Why make the magic more needlessly elaborate than it need to be?

        I’m not sure why you argue that the system of magic is internally consistent, Sam, but then rely on external examples to prove your second point. Sure, they might be closely related to this topic in a broad sense (just as Leonard’s science fiction examples are), but I’m looking for a more specific parallel here. I don’t really think it’s the same.

    • I think that’s a fair critique, actually – that Ursu chose to write within the trope of high fantasy here, and then didn’t play by the rules. BREADCRUMBS worked accordingly to fairy tale logic, which, as you pointed out above, is no logic at all, but maybe that doesn’t work here.

      I think the “magic as MacGuffin” idea holds water, but I disagree that it fails here.

      I agree that the entire theme of the book hinges on the idea that fake children are no substitute for real ones, but I still think the motivations of the Shining People play into that. The Shining People are weak, pathetic, and ultimately not to be admired. We’re not supposed to agree with them, as readers, but I can envision a world that would create people like them.

      And maybe, too, here Ursu is again working according to fairy tale logic instead of high fantasy logic: fairy tales are full of parents who want children so badly that they’re willing to make them out of gingerbread or whatever. The fake children are not intended to be Cauldron Born horrors but plausible approximations of their real counterparts.

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    Well, I stand by my GATTACA example. For those who haven’t seen it (and I’m not saying it’s a great movie) the Wikipedia plot summary begins: “In “the not-too-distant future”, liberal eugenics is common and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class. Vincent Freeman is conceived and born without the aid of this technology. He has a high probability of developing mental disorders, is myopic, has a heart defect, and his projected life expectancy is only 30.2 years. His parents initially placed their faith in natural conception and now regret it; Vincent’s younger brother, Anton, is conceived with the aid of genetic selection. Anton surpasses his older brother in many aspects…”

  6. My browser just ate my reply :(

    The short version is that, though I don’t agree with you on the magic issue, I see where you’re coming from (in much the same way that, as you mention, though we’re on very different sides of THE THING ABOUT LUCK, I hope we can at least see what each other’s justification is for feeling that way). As for the parents’ motivation — and I don’t think I made this very clear in my last reply, alas — I just want to make the case that it’s comparable to things that have occurred in the not-terribly-distant past, as opposed to being something that’s just a product of the author’s imagination. I can’t think of a children’s literature compariston, but I don’t think that matters. Your Mileage, however, as always, May Vary. :)

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Just to chime in with my agreement with Sam – Eugenics has a very storied past, even in the United States, where it was a highly touted progressive ideal, until the Nazis showed the world the evil ways it could be used. And even today, many people test their unborn children/fetuses/whatever word you want to use for genetic disorders, and then choose to abort those pregnancies rather than have children with those disorders. Indeed, the rate of Down Syndrom in the general population has reduced drastically precisely because of this testing. I have no wish to start a political/moral discussion about this issue, simply to state that parents will go to great lengths to ensure health babies.

      Ursu’s wooden children are (to me) a very clear fantastical-extreme version of this type of eugenic behavior on the part of parents. It is important, too, to remember that this is a fairly small group of parents who are all at the top of the social order, which makes their “arms race” much more believable as well. Again, plenty of rich parents right now are getting their kids on various prescription drugs in order to compete in the education marketplace. Ursu’s world is obviously more extreme, but that’s where Leonard’s SF comment comes in – she is creating a kind of dystopian worst-case scenario based on the kinds of thoughts and actions real parents are having right now in our society.

  7. It seems to me, Jonathan, that it’s really unfair to say that just because you and I (and Betsy Bird and whoever else) wouldn’t want magical, perfect children that it’s inconceivable that any human characters would ever want them. I agree with Rachel that the Shining People aren’t supposed to be good, rational folks. They’re more like drug addicts. They’re addicted to magic and don’t believe they can survive without it. Their decision to turn to Caleb (their dealer, to continue the analogy) to solve their problems is totally believable.

    I wrote a longer post in response to Nina’s review of THE REAL BOY about how I think magic is a kind of metaphor for technology (or drugs, I guess) or anything a society can become addicted to. It’s okay with me that magic can’t really be pinned down in this book. The point is that magic was once useful and good in the hands of wizards, but after the wizards were gone the culture changed and people became addicted to it, and now it’s become a scourge. Can’t you say the same thing about our real-world use of natural resources? Oil was at one time an amazingly useful and great thing, but now it threatens our existence on this planet.

    • Amanda says:

      Yes! I hadn’t read The Real Boy before my October nominations, but it now makes my top five and I’m looking forward to a reread. The Real Boy is a little bit dystopia, and for me the fact that not just Oscar but their entire community doesn’t really understand magic or steward it with an eye toward sustainability justifies it not being clearly explained to us as the reader. It isn’t comfortable, because we’re used to having the rules of magic laid out for us in our fantasy books, but I don’t think that’s a flaw just unconventional.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Another (movie) example, one that also invokes Pinocchio, is Spielberg’s AI. The robot boy is specifically manufactured to be “a child substitute. . . . Ours will be a perfect child caught in a freeze-frame – always loving, never ill, never changing.” In this story, the robot goes to a couple whose first child is in suspended animation due to disease. The mother initially is freaked out by this not-quite-human boy, but eventually both keeps and loves it. The point is not that any of us feels this way, but that it’s a plausible enough a motivation to use in a story. That’s the real disagreement here. We all agree it’s wrong. The question is whether it’s credible but wrong, or so wrong as not to be credible.

    • Thank you for that, Leonard. I totally agree. I think it’s obviously wrong but credible, especially in a fantasy setting.

      On another note, this whole conversation about the plausibility of parental motivation makes me think about my biggest problem with COUNTING BY 7S (which I don’t think has been discussed on this blog yet). *SPOILER ALERT* I have a seriously hard time believing that a mother would let her children live in a rundown shack for years and years while she hoards enough money to buy an apartment complex. And yet I’ve been told by several librarian colleagues that it’s a real thing that happens in some cultures. Now, that’s not exactly the same kind of thing as TRB because CB7s is supposed to take place in the present day real world, but it’s really hard for me to get past it, even though I know I should. So in some ways I can sympathize with Jonathan’s position here.

  9. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of these posts are out of chronological order for some reason; this one came much later in the discussion.

    A couple points of clarification . . .

    1. We’ve had lots of contemporary and historical and literary examples of parents who want perfect children, and I agree with all of them, but that–dear readers–was never a point of contention. Rather the point of contention is *why* this particular character in this particular story (i.e. the character of Lord Cooper in THE REAL BOY) wants perfect children, and we don’t need to speculate about magic or money or greed because he tells us quite plainly IN THE TEXT why he wants perfect children: “WE’D NEVER HAVE TO SEE THEM SUFFER AT ALL.” It’s not about racial superiority or physical superiority or a competitive edge. It’s all about the children again: “YOU WOULDN’T WANT YOUR CHILD TO BE THE ONLY ONE WITH FLAWS.” As Nina mentioned, we simply don’t know the Shining People well enough to draw further inferences about their motives beyond the very little screen time they get in the story–and I do not believe that any of the external examples from real life and other literary sources that have been provided here really address the motivation of this particular father (not that he wants perfect children, but *why* he wants perfect children). That’s why I think it’s perfectly fair for me to continue to insist that this motivation is inconsistent with normal human behavior.

    2. There is an old storytelling adage that if you want to sell an unbelievable premise to your audience the best time to do it is the very beginning of a story because they will forgive and forget, and they will adjust to the new reality over the course of the narrative. Conversely, the very worst time to do it is at the very end because it just makes the audience question the very fabric of your story. Thus, even though I find great fault with the father’s motivation for wanting a perfect child, I think if this had been introduced at the beginning of the story, rather than at the eleventh hour– and as the revelation of a major plot point, no less–that this would be a much less problematic issue.

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Jonathan – the point I’m trying to make with the historical and literary allusions is just that “WE’D NEVER HAVE TO SEE THEM SUFFER AT ALL.” and “YOU WOULDN’T WANT YOUR CHILD TO BE THE ONLY ONE WITH FLAWS.” are (perhaps extreme versions of) thoughts that real (and literary) parents have had, which is why I find them to be plausible as motivation.

      HOWEVER, I do think it is a fair point that two lines are a thin branch to hang a lot of motivation on, and I agree that we probably don’t have enough information about the Shining People. I’ll also point out that I am usually at the very forefront of the Plausibility Police, so I sympathize with your position.

      With all of that said, I think I’ll have to bow out of this part of the conversation until I can get my hands on the book again to find (or not find) support for my position.

  10. Rosalind Pickwick says:

    My problem with The Real Boy as a Newbery book is audience. Would any child understand the ramifications and depth of the theme? Would any child even understand the book? I personally felt very out of the loop and rather confused by the end of the book, mostly because of, yes, the magic – wouldn’t all the city children die if all the magic was removed? and a disconnect with the characters and plot except for Oscar, whom I feel very much for. I think he was the most developed character in the entire novel.

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