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The Kingdom of Little Wounds

little wounds The Kingdom of Little Wounds

The Kingdom of Little Wounds, Susann Cokal
Candlewick Press, October 2013
Reviewed from ARC

I wanted to like this.

I mean, it’s huge, it’s about my favorite general period in history, it uses a fairy tale motif throughout, it’s got a stunning package, and people whose opinions I respect say this is an it book when it comes to literary books this year.

I really really wanted to like this.

But…

I didn’t.

It was long. It was gratuitous. It was full of lovely writing, I’ll grant that for sure, but that lovely prose often struck me as lovely for it’s own sake rather than an integral part of the narrative, and the characters never convinced me; too often they acted as the narrative dictated.

It was so adult I didn’t feel I was old enough to be reading it, which isn’t really a fair assessment, but more to the point, the characters were not, in any modern way, teenagers; they were adults in a scary adult world, and although I usually stand by the publisher-listed age, this is where Sophie’s argument (paraphrased, possibly mangled, and which she may have only ever made to me verbally) that a well-written YA novel should in some essential way be about or speak to teens is ringing loudly in my ears, because this is the first book where I can’t find the YA-ness (appeal or theme or resonance) at all.

I do pride myself on being able to get past my own dislike, and I can see how there is a lot to discuss here from a literary perspective, but in the end I didn’t have much of anything nice to say, and Thumper’s father would caution me to therefore hold my tongue.*

Instead, I’m hoping that the handful of you who strongly champion this one as a contender, maybe even a frontrunner, will see my restraint as an opportunity to shout your arguments from the treetops (or at least the comment box). Have at it, convince us — and may the best argument win.

 

*At least until the comments.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Kara Ashanti says:

    I’m glad to hear people are presenting this as a front runner. It should be. It is a powerful book and beautifully written. Sure, I can see it’s not for everybody — things happen in this book that shocked me, and I *love* Game of Thrones. But it’s a book about power and who has it and who doesn’t, and that’s important for young women to discuss and to work through. The category is young *adult*, not young children, after all.
    YMMV, I guess, but when I read it found it stunning and powerful and unforgettable. If I’d found a book like this as a teen I would have loved it with all my heart, and it would have helped me when I needed it.

  2. Jill says:

    I agree that The Kingdom of Little Wounds is beautifully written, but I also agree that it doesn’t quite fit the criteria of a YA book. It is indeed about power dynamics, but the teen (and the many adult) characters work *within* the power system rather than questioning it. The violence and sexuality aren’t quite used in a YA way, and the book lacks the authentic teen perspectives and the focus on identity development that characterize YA lit.

    I think a lot of confusion comes from competing definitions of the term “YA lit.” The term seems to have multiple meanings, ranging from an audience-centered definition like “books that teens read and love” to a category-centered definition like “works that focus on power, identity, teen perspective, and teen voice.”

    I blog about this on the Locker Combinations blog at BookPage here: http://www.bookpage.com/the-book-case/2013/10/09/locker-combinations-with-jill-ratzan

    Thanks for opening up this conversation! I look forward to hearing what others have to say.

  3. Kara Ashanti says:

    You’re saying it can’t be YA if the characters “work within the power system rather than questioning it”? Leaving out the question of whether that parameter is reasonable, which I would argue it is not, the novel rebuts that argument. I mean, obviously (SPOILER alert!) having a protagonist kill the powerful character who embodies that power system, while another disrupts the chain of inheritance that underlies the monarchy .. (END SPOILERS!)
    Goodness, what additional “questioning” would you want?
    The two main protagonists are teens, and the story is told largely from their perspective. Each discovers her own abilities and strengths as the story moves forward, allowing them to take action that changes their own lives, despite great risk. It’s interesting that the only ones handwringing about whether teens should read such things are adults. Today’s teens read far more upsetting things every day. This novel gives them tools to deal with the terrible injustices a lot of them (sadly) have faced or will.
    It is a terrific book. It deserves its acclaim.

    • Kate says:

      I don’t think anyone is “handwringing” over whether teens should read this book. I’m certainly not. (And honestly, I’m frustrated with the number of times this accusation comes up on this blog and Heavy Medal, which deal with predicting a small number of winners for two very specific awards, not reader’s advisory as a whole.) The question at hand is whether this is a YA book at heart–and, as Jill has touched on, what the differences are between “books teens will read” and “books that deal with the developmental work of adolescence,” and where we locate YA literature. The main character of ROOM is a child, but ROOM is not a children’s book. The main characters of many Alex winners are teens, but they are still published for adults–and interesting and helpful for teens to read.

      With that said… the Printz P&P seem to suggest that the award should go to a work of literary excellence which has been “designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as “young adult,” i.e., 12 through 18.” There’s nothing about audience in the suggested criteria as there is for the Newbery. So it seems like once Candlewick has decided it’s a young adult book, the committee’s job is to decide whether it’s a work of literary excellence, period. Not a work of literary excellence for young adults.

  4. Karyn Silverman says:

    I’m not wringing my hands either, although I can’t imagine what teen I’d give this to.

    Kate, the argument I was making (that I am not really sure I can stand behind, but this is the first time I’ve wanted to use it) is that well-written in the context of a novel published for YA readers should include some essential teen element, whether in terms of character or theme, and I don’t see either of those here. If you buy that argument, that would be one more strike against this.

    That said, all I did by going there was water down my own discussion points. My bigger objections here are to the characterizations — Midi in particular I didn’t entirely buy, and there were a few occasions when it seemed that she acted per the dictates of the plot rather than consistently within her character.

    (I am, of course, writing this without the book to hand; I’ll try to remember to look for the passages in question tomorrow.)

    And again, I found some of the passages struck me as gratuitous (the gems in the penis were described in more detail than I at least needed, for one), which means that in my reading they weren’t written in a way that compelled, but gratuitous could be subjective interpretation so I am curious as to what others thought of the sex and violence.

    I also thought the fairy tale passages and Sophia’s ghost passages were some of the most beautiful writing in this text but I didn’t see how they furthered all of the thematic elements — beauty for it’s own sake.

    So forget about whether it’s YA, and prove to me that it’s great.

  5. Sarah says:

    I agree with almost everything about Karyn’s assessment. Yes, much of the writing is lovely, but it felt like it was lovely just for the sake of being lovely (here’s where I would attempt to illegally contrast it to another book with lovely writing, say, THE DREAM THIEVES, but lovely writing that actually does something for the plot). Much of the darkness and violence seemed gratuitous, intended simply to shock. And, I realize we may want to move on from the “is this YA or not” argument, but I fall decidedly in the camp of this is not. Yes, I will grant you that many of the characters are teen age. But they are teen age when the notion of a teenager was practically non-existent. They are 15, 16, 17 (whatever the number is) at a time when this made them an adult. Does this mean teens won’t read it and get something from it? Of course not, but, to me, it doesn’t work.

  6. Blythe says:

    I love this book, but I can see that other careful, thoughtful readers might not. There have been some points raised that are quite thought provoking. I’ll just come clean and admit one reason I study this blog and the opinions expressed here is because I am not always as perceptive a reader as I need to be. And I need to be very perceptive in order become a better writer. It’s an off-label use for this blog. ; ) These are the things I’ve been considering in light of this discussion…

    How can an author negotiate historical fiction for young readers without betraying the historical facts of class, gender, and race? Is there a way to write an interesting strong young woman who isn’t an anachronism? I don’t know. My own ignorance is demoralizing to me. Especially since I’m spent the last 15 months trying to do those things.

    And, boy, am I in love with a certain kind of language that is beautiful for its own sake!

    Most important: Who gets to decide what is YA? The publisher makes a decision. Judging by the discussion of RELISH, I guess that can eliminate books from Printz consideration. Does it trump the individual judgments of readers and committee members? Probably not.

    Anyway, thank you all for providing me with continuing education. I appreciate it.

    • Kara says:

      You are right to ask the question about who decides what is YA. Seems to me the only opinions on that topic that really matter are a) the publishers, who decide on a book’s audience based on experience and taste, and b) the young adults themselves, who decide to accept or avoid a story based on their own desires and tastes.
      I think that by the time readers are 15 and 16, they are long past the age in which they need adults to vet their reading materials for age-appropriateness. Especially these days, when “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” and far more explicit materials are one click away. “Kingdom” is so beautifully written, so well researched and plotted, that I’d give it to any smart, literary-minded teen.
      It’s one of the best of the year. Ask Publishers Weekly and the ALA, which put it on their lists.
      G

  7. Elizabeth Burns says:

    Raises hand. This post inspired me to read this, AND I loved it. My post will be going up on Tuesday, but part of the reason I loved it was the way it was written like real history. Various perspectives, and motivations, with no one “real” answer to some of the questions raised. It’s up to the reader to decide.

    As for it being teen – aside from the published as teen, Ava and Midi may be working, and may be living apart from their families, but neither is “independent” or “adult” in a way that we would see an older teen or adult be today. Both have to listen to other people’s desires, wants, and whims — the way a teen still in high school, say, has to do what their parents want, what their school wants, etc. Both also have little power, so instead manipulate and use what power they can, sometimes to harm (making up the story about the noble woman — not that different, say, from a teen making up a story about a teacher to get out of trouble.)

    The majority of the story is Ava and Midi reacting to the world around them. Even when they think they are acting, it’s more reactions. Until the end: when both act and take control of their story, and their own stories. Which, I’d argue, is another teen experience, and step toward adulthood.

    • Kara says:

      Absolutely agree! This book meant a lot to me. It would have meant even more if I’d read it as a teen — I wish I’d had it when I needed it.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Even if I went along with your reading, Liz, I still think it’s sometimes overwritten and gratuitous. Thoughts? I’ll click through and look for your review in a bit, in case you answered this there…

  8. Kara says:

    Karyn, clearly your mind’s made up. I and many others say the writing is beautiful, the characterizations compelling, the plot more so.
    The details are grotesque, but so was the time — which instead of making me unhappy with the details, actually makes me now dissatisfied with other historical novels that airbrushed out the unpleasant parts. Its main characters take charge of their lives despite overwhelming odds, and it ends with a glimpse of hope and happiness.
    If that’s not your thing, fine. It is mine. It inspires me. Real literature is not easygoing. It’s a beautiful thing that also shocks and upsets. This is a book that means a lot to me, and it will mean a lot to many young people, particularly young women. It deserves all the praise it’s getting.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Kara, the crux of your argument for the book’s merits has been about how meaningful it was for you as a reader, and that’s just as inadmissible in a Court of Merit as my own dislike. And I’ve already said that the appeal factor isn’t really admissible either, and that I should never have raised it. I’m always willing to change my mind, but so far I haven’t heard any arguments that compel me. Putting aside like and dislike, there are textual elements here that detract from the overall book — for me, these flaws make me see this one as less deserving of the Printz, but there is a lot to discuss and the RealCommittee might argue their way to a different consensus.

      Here, again, are my own reasons I don’t currently support this as a final five contender — with the qualifier that I think this year is pretty weak and when all is said and done even with my reservations this might yet squeak into fifth place, depending on this conversation, Liz’s review, and so on — because if I mind really were already made up, that would be no fun either.

      Midi may be admirable, but (as Blythe alluded to) she’s got elements of spunky girl anachronism. I didn’t believe in her as a character or a historical figure. I also don’t dispute that some of the grotesquerie is historically accurate, but there are elements that struck me as gratuitous and inaccurate — details included for shock and outrage, to further thematic scope maybe, but to a point that felt a bit like being pummeled and that were more about propelling ideas or plot than about bringing the past to life. Yes, sex and power for Nicholas are the same. Yes the jewels in his penis make that connection VERY explicit. It wasn’t a common practice, though, so that detail is not there for historical purposes — like moments when Midi is anachronistically powerful/uncowed/awesome and able to manipulate events, these details exist to further authorial aims.

      Finally, if we’re discussing the historical accuracy as a point in Kingdom’s favor, I’m interested in hearing what people think about the fairy tale aspects. These are neither historically accurate (the structure is very Grimm-like and literary but this is more than a century earlier and before the rise of the literary fairy tale; they are literary fairy tales from a modern perspective) nor do I see them as propelling narrative — beautiful, yes, but what do they do for the text as a whole other than dress it up? Same for the haunting. I loved the writing most of all in these parts, but at the same time they are the crux of my perspective that there is beautiful writing here mostly for the sake of beautiful writing.

      • Kara says:

        I apologize if I gave the impression that my fondness of the book is the basis of my literary critique. It’s the opposite, in fact – my admiration for the book is what makes me so fond of it. Shouldn’t literature inspire strong feelings?
        Your critique of Midi is interesting, particularly because Jill in her comment seems to be making an opposite one. You say the character is too “spunky”; Jill says Midi (among others) are too passive. I would agree with your take, Karyn, because I see Midi as someone seething with rage.
        She is a young woman stolen and raped and used and made literally voiceless. You call her spunky — I would say she’s filled with righteous anger that only late in the story can find its proper outlet. She’s as angry as Medea and Lady Macbeth or Circe, and in my reading is as iconic as those ancient women made powerful through rage, though in realist-novel form. Is she believable? To me she is.
        Your point about the fairy tales is a good one, but I think it’s refuted by folklorists, as mentioned in passing in the author’s note. The Perrault and Grimm fairy/folk tales that we know do date from a century later than the setting of this book — but those were only the *recorded* versions of much older stories. The fairy tales in the novel clearly are literary in quality – the whole book aims for literary quality, after all – but are in line with the earliest known versions of the tales we know, the ones with the unpleasant, raggedy endings.

      • Kara says:

        The fairy-tale elements work for me thematically because the novel is about, among other things, the idea that the stories we tell *matter* — the stories about who you are affect how you see yourself; the stories we use to guide us affect how we live our lives; and the stories others tell about you change the way others think of you.
        Think of the many ways this theme is played out — it’s everywhere throughout the novel. For example, if you read the haunting scene again, you’ll see that it’s actually a tale told by the people of the castle – another way the story weaves together the plot and the idea that how you tell your tale matters a great deal.

  9. Karyn Silverman says:

    Liz has posted her review, and it’s lovely and not unconvincing: http://blogs.slj.com/teacozy/2013/12/05/review-the-kingdom-of-little-wounds/

    • Kara says:

      I concur! I would love to explore the symbolism and layering woven throughout the book — the use of storytelling as a motif, as mentioned earlier, for example, and the ways disease is so pervasive it affects everything, to the point where the characters refer to even love or kindness as sickness. The level and depth of thought and literary skill in the book is stunning.

  10. Blythe says:

    I love this discussion. Two things: 1) I never intended to suggest that Midi was especially anachronistic. Quite the opposite. I think she is a mad survivor—not cut from the kick-ass cloth at all. 2) Please don’t say that this is a weak/bad/unimpressive year for YA. It does an injustice, I think. It’s dismissive of the quality that *is* out there. Looking at the Morris noms, for example, I see marvelous strength and worthiness. And that’s only five books.

  11. Kara says:

    One more note about the historical appropriateness of the fairy tales – Straparola’s work in the 1500s includes the first written versions of many tales: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giovanni_Francesco_Straparola .

  12. Olivia says:

    This book forced me to slow down and read it carefully. I started it expecting a “Reign”-type story, but quickly, as Liz says, discovered that it’s a book you need to pay attention to. And IT IS COMPLETELY WORTH IT.
    The language cast a spell on me; it’s as beautifully woven as the tapestries and needlework that the characters create and live among. That is appropriate; storytelling and seduction are some of its main themes. Beautiful language works on us, the way it does on its characters.
    It’s true that some of the details are repulsive. But that was life at the time, and stories that ignore this are ignoring much of life. I found the specifics fascinating, particularly since the book is focused on the workings of the body in sickness and in health.
    The main characters felt real to me because unlike the court schemers they are just trying to get by. But then they take some lessons from their enemies and start taking action.
    The ending was so moving and so believable — not a happy ending so much as the possibility of one — and so completely earned. Yes, reader, I cried a little.

  13. Elizabeth Burns says:

    A couple of quick things that I don’t think I have in my review.

    Spunky characters: in a reveal your age moment, I shall forever associate this with Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore, and thus have a certain connotative definition that views spunky as including a fairly positive outlook. An outlook that Midi does not have. What she does have is rage, and anger, both pressed far, far down, often taken out on those who are not the true cause of said rage and anger. What she does have is a refusal to succumb.

    The jewels: ah, the question of just how “factual” one’s historical fiction must be. I don’t disagree that this can be important. For historical fiction, I see two primary questions. One, does it make sense within the four corners of the book? Two, is it at all probable to have happened? (Oh, I realize there is a third question, when actual figures or events are used: how close to known history is the story? Are there obvious mistakes, and if liberties, are they explained?) For me, for this book, the jewels satisfies both question. Yes, I believe Nicolas would do that. Yes, I believe it’s not impossible to have been done at that time and place.

    Fairy tales: keep in mind, I did a read and a half, and no post its or highlighters, that is, this is going on memory. Aren’t most of the fairy tales framing the story? Isn’t it unclear whether it’s part of the story happening, or more connected to the unknown “present” of the four princesses getting told a story? So, for “what year” questions, I don’t think that is problematic. As a total non scholar, it seemed more to me that we were not to identify any particular fairy tale, but just the tales in general, and as such, absent some serious scholarly research, I’m hesitant to say what would or would be included in tales told by the regular people during both the time the story is set and the time the story is told per the framing device of the story.

    Aside from that, I think the tales themselves serve three key purposes: a reminder that when a story ends changes the story, whether its a happy, sad, hopeful ending, etc.; an emphasis that it is usually princesses who are the main characters, and in this story, it is the servants; and the use of story versus real life to show how we either are shaped by the tales we tell, or shape the tales we tell.

    • Olivia says:

      Yes, the fairy tales are presented essentially as framing devices — I read them as stories Ava would have known or made up, but I don’t think that’s spelled out.

      As for the jewels, it turns out that at least some cultures have done exactly what Nicolas does – warning, NSFW imagery!: http://www.sugargirlsandseamen.com/2007/05/whats-deal-with-your-penis.html

    • Kara says:

      Yes – if “spunky” is meant to suggest someone who’s a feisty, We-can-do-this! sort of person, it’s absolutely the wrong word to describe Midi. She’s really, really, really angry — and justifiably so. Her final revenge is brutal and merciless. And, to my eyes, completely appropriate.

  14. TK says:

    A lot has already been said about this book and I don’t have anything to add about its content or quality. However I think this sort of “is it or is it not really YA” book, depending wholly about the makeup of the RC can be (fairly or not) dismissed from consideration. Particularly because of some of the reasons that Karyn mentions in her initial post. My point is that I would be neither terribly surprised if TKoLW gets a seal OR if it is never seriously considered.

  15. Alissa says:

    Many good discussions here–and I agree with much of it. The book IS indeed very graphic and explicit. Almost to the point of going overboard with it (Seriously could have gone without the repeated and lengthy descriptions of Lord Nicolas’s, um, “family jewels”. Among other things). The book is also beautifully written. The prose reminded me of Rachel Hartman or Rae Carson or Allison Croggon. And it very much set the scene for the story. Personally, I didn’t care for the story itself, but it’s not my cup of tea (or coffee or soup). However, I don’t deny the book’s literary merit. And I agree that it deserves whatever awards it gets!

    One of the hang-ups I’ve noticed among debaters is the age-appropriateness of the title. And I can see where everyone is coming from. Rather than say this is YA, I’d call it a “Crossover Fiction” or “New Adult” or whatever the current “IT” term and/or classification is for books aimed at the 18-24 crowd. As a YA librarian, I won’t censor anyone who wishes to read it (with all the hoopla, I’m guessing more teens will pick it up just for curiosity’s sake. Not unlike Judy Blume’s “Forever” when I was a tween). It’s in the Teen collection and everyone is welcome to it. However, I will exercise my best judgment in who I recommend it to.

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