Category Archives: young adult

Pratchett’s “The Shepherd’s Crown” and A Pair of Sensible Boots

[Spoilers the size of Granny’s Boots.  Seriously, this post will spoil you on one of the most important moments in the book and in the series.]

Reading Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book in his Discworld Series, The Shepherd’s Crown, left me feeling emotionally raw in the best kind of way. While it may have been a bit less polished compared with earlier books in the series, it contained gorgeous emotional depth. It contained so much feeling, so much love. It contained warnings. It contained hope. Sometimes we, either individually or as a society, lose our way, but we can work together for the good of the community. Terry Pratchett believed in us. He believed that good people can prevail—not perfect people and not followers of a particular creed.  But rather good people who care about others and do the things that need doing. People able to both listen and truly see the world around them.

Although I have many books left to read in the Discworld series, I wanted to read this final book, as it was in his young adult series that I love. For those who haven’t read Terry Pratchett, he used different characters in his various sub-series in Discworld. One included witches like Granny Weatherwax. In his young adult series, he follows the childhood, adolescence, and, in this book, emerging adulthood of Tiffany Aching. (Incidentally, I loved Granny Weatherwax, as well as her principles, so much that I named my car after her. My next car will likely be named after Tiffany.)

Reading this book was highly emotional since Terry Pratchett had early onset Alzheimers and passed away in March of 2015.  Before I read the book, I experienced a sense of loss and sadness. I wondered what the tone of his last novel would be like. I was right to expect an emotional response to the book, but I didn’t expect the wealth and variety of feelings I had. Pratchett seemed to love all his characters; this love never seemed so profound to me as in “The Shepherd’s Crown.” It radiated. As far as I know, Tiffany is the only character that he “raised” from childhood and focused on so extensively. In his books, he shaped her to be the representative of what he thought a good person, and a good leader, should be like.

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a good society and a good person lately, as this year has seemed especially filled with international tension. Terry Pratchett’s entire series dealt with this, but, in his final book, his thoughts became even more clear. This book was about communities and relationships. Throughout the books, Granny’s role as Tiffany’s mentor was essential. Granny dies in this book in a very low key way.  Her interaction with one of the main character’s in Pratchett’s series, Death, was important to the theme that Pratchett developed on what a good person, and a good life, actually is. Knowing that Death was coming for her, some of Granny’s considerate last acts were deep cleaning her home, thanking her bees, feeding her goats and chickens, and bathing herself. Death comes to take Granny’s soul.

Her visitor was no stranger, and the land she knew she was going to was a land she had helped many others to step through to over the years. For a witch stands on the very edge of everything between the light and the dark, between life and death, making choices, making decisions so that others can pretend that no decisions have even been made.  Sometimes they need to help some poor soul through the final hours, help them find the door, not to get lost in the dark (28).

Death and Granny converse. He asks her why she was content to live in “‘this tiny little country’” when she “‘could have been anything and anybody in the world?’” (29). Granny replied that she “‘never wanted the world—just a part of it, a small part that I could keep safe, that I could keep away from the storms. Not the ones in the sky, you understand: there are other kinds’” (29).

Death states:

“WE ARE ALL FLOATING IN THE WINDS OF TIME.  BUT YOUR CANDLE, MISTRESS WEATHERWAX, WILL FLICKER FOR SOME TIME BEFORE IT GOES OUT—A LITTLE REWARD FOR A LIFE WELL LIVED, FOR I CAN SEE THE BALANCE AND YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT. AND IF YOU ASK ME, NOBODY COULD DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT” (30).

For two pages, characters from the entire DiscWorld series become aware that Granny Weatherwax has died and mourn her loss in their unique ways. This illustrates how the effects of her life ripple outward.  However, this book is about Tiffany becoming an adult.

Shoes, generally, are a theme throughout Pratchett’s work. The book begins with a mention of Tiffany’s boots, an important symbol.

Today, for some reason, [Tiffany] had felt the need to come up to the stones. Like any sensible witch, she wore strong boots that could march through anything—good, sensible boots. But they did not stop her feeling her land, feeling what it told her. It had begun with a tickle, an itch that crept into her feet and demanded to be heard, urging her to tramp over the downs, to visit the circle. Even while she was sticking her hand up a sheep’s bottom to sort out a nasty case of colic.  Why she had to go to the stones, Tiffany did not know, but no witch ignored what could be a summons. And the circles stood as protection. Protection for her land. Protection for what could come through (4).

Tiffany gets outside confirmation that her feeling was correct. When Granny dies, the expectation is that Tiffany will lead the witches, although witches don’t officially have leaders. Granny leaves “all of it” to Tiffany, except her cat, who had a mind of her own. Tiffany thinks, “‘How can I possibly tread in the footsteps of Granny Weatherwax?  She is…was…unfollowable (43).

Pratchett’s thoughts on leadership are readily apparent, as Nanny Ogg, another witch in the series, says to Tiffany, “‘It’s you Tiff. Esme’s left you her cottage.  But more’n that.  You must step into the shoes of Granny Weatherwax or else’n someone less qualified with try an’ do it” (55). We have a responsibility to lead.

Although Tiffany has many doubts, Nanny expressed strongly (based on the previous books in the series) why Tiffany has earned the position by her own actions and merits. Tiffany tries to manage her own homestead in the Chalk, while trying both literally and figuratively to fill Granny’s boots and handle Granny’s Homestead. The book explores that being an individuated adult does not mean literally becoming the same as your elders.  It means finding your own path, your own loves, your own strengths, your own limits, and your own home. Tiffany wears her own boots, not Granny’s.

In the end, Pratchett’s major theme and symbol for the book, and the series, is the shepherd’s crown.  Tiffany’s ancestor, a shepherd, finds a shell. In the prologue, a sea creature developed a shell and survived. “…[T]here the creature lived on things even smaller than itself and grew until it became king” (1). It died when the water evaporated. Time passed until the day when “it was found by a shepherd minding his flock on the hills that had become known as the chalk” (2).  The shepherd was Tiffany’s ancestor, who saved the shell because it looked like a crown.  It passed down in the family until it was in Tiffany’s possession. Tiffany uses it to remind herself that she is of the chalk. Later in the book, a creature says to Tiffany:

“And I am the shepherd’s crown. Deep in my heart is the flint.  And I have many uses.  Some call me the sea urchin, others the thunderstone, but here, now, in this place, call me the shepherd’s crown.  I seek a true shepherd.  Where can a true shepherd be found?” (237).

At first, Tiffany thinks of her father. But then, she hears a voice, “‘Tiffany Aching is the first among shepherds, for she puts others before herself. . . .”(238).

The shepherd’s crown is in contrast to the usual idea of hereditary authority coming through a crown. (Other books in the series have discussed authority, power, and the crown.) However, the people that Pratchett argues do the most good in this final book for others are the people like Tiffany. They are quite powerful. However, they don’t thirst for power. But they do have power, and they use it when necessary. The witches fight for their communities and battle for them. Pratchett didn’t shy away from fighting when the community was threatened. But they also cut old men’s toenails. They do what is necessary for their flock.

Pratchett also explored differences between men and women’s experiences in the village communities. This might make some people uncomfortable, but I thought that he made a good point. A goat herder that joins them who has talents similar to the witches, including a goat familiar. Tiffany’s first big divergence as a leader was to welcome him as a witch. (This paralleled a previous Pratchett story where a woman became a wizard.) The older men in the community welcomed him and shared their invention with him. It is likely that they would not have felt as comfortable sharing the weapon with a woman, even a witch. The character was a vegetarian and looked at the world differently. In the end, he takes over Granny’s homestead. Tiffany returns to her own, and makes her own moving tiny home. She learns carpentry so that she can make her own home.  I think this is a major statement that Pratchett is making.  (It reminds me of the argument in “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” a book that a friend recommended to me years ago.  The book discussed the value and meaning of different types of work, especially that which people often devalue: making things.)

Ultimately, I think that Pratchett was arguing that we are connected intimately with our ancestors and our land.  It’s a relationship that we shouldn’t ignore. We can change, we can grow, but we should also acknowledge our roots. We build relationships over decades. We all like to feel useful. Even if we no longer live where our ancestors did, we should strive to understand and benefit our local community.  This includes people, wildlife, and the community itself.

I felt like Pratchett eased my grieving process over his death through showing the characters grieving the loss of Granny Weatherwax.  Although I didn’t know him, his creativity and values have shaped my life.

The whole forest sang now sang for Granny Weatherwax….

Where is Granny now? Tiffany wondered. Could a part of her still be…here? She jumped as something touched her on the shoulder, but it was just a leaf. Then, deep inside, she knew the answer to her question: Where is Granny Weatherwax?

It was: She is here—and everywhere (54).

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Uncategorized, young adult

“I am Princess X”: A Nancy Drew-like Mystery with a Twist for Today’s Teens

[Beware: Spoilers!]

Although I stalled out on my Nebula reading back in April, I have been reading great books and comics. I just finished I am Princess X, written by Cherie Priest and illustrated by Kali Ciesemier. Although I haven’t read any YA novels in a couple of years, I stumbled across an intriguing review of the book.

Two best friends, May and Libby create a world together about a character called Princess X. Libby dies in a tragic accident, and May ages three years. Eventually, May starts seeing Princess X materials around Seattle, and she begins to investigate the possibility that May is alive.  May recruits the help of a teen computer prodigy in her quest.

I really appreciated the fact that the books integrated modern technology into the characters’ lives, although I have no idea how it would resonate to a teen in terms of what technology they are more likely to use. Since I’ve visited Seattle twice and had lovely visits, I adored the fact that there were many scenes all over the Seattle area. The books also felt familiar beyond just the city scenes. I felt a wave of nostalgia for the old mystery books I used to read as a child and teenager. It reminded me of  books with mystery-solving protagonists like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, etc.  In a more modern sense, it reminded me a bit of television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

During my research for this piece, I discovered this article on Nancy Drew and the publishing industry. It’s a long, fascinating read.  I was dumbfounded to learn the the “old” Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books that belonged to my parents were actually revised versions from the 1950s. They updated them in terms of driving ages and types of cars, as well as taking out racist stereotypes. I did know that when I was a teen in the 1990s that new Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books were being released because I read them as they came out. I lacked much of a critical lens at that age, so I have no idea what my reaction to the books would be if I read them today. As far as I know, this book is not part of a series, but I can see how it could be a part of a series.

Returning to I am Princess X, I was really excited to see that the theme of social class was present in the book, particularly homelessness. Most of the chapters were presented from May’s point of view.  However, a bit of the book is presented from the point of view of a homeless man. He saved and helped Libby. Libby also was living homeless to escape the clutches of the man who murdered her parents and kidnapped her. I liked the fact that the book would have sympathetically exposed teens to the idea of homelessness and perhaps would reduce stereotyping towards homeless persons by teens. The villain, on the other hand, was a wealthy business owner who had a history of mistreating women. He used his resources to break the law in multiple ways.

Furthermore, I was pleased to see an exploration of gender. The young women in the book were both amazing, and the young men were, too. When sexism happened between May and her new friend, they discussed it. Although there might have been attraction between them, the book didn’t turn into a romance. The most important relationship was between the friends, May and Libby.

The last relationship that I want to address is between Libby and her father. There is conflict between them, but he is not a villain or completely absent. In fact, when he made a mistake, he attempted to actually correct it by helping her research Libby’s case.   

Although my thoughts about the book are mainly positive, occasionally I did get distracted from the story wondering if a teen would actually think about a particular situation in the way that May did. The book also had illustrated pages of Princess X comics. I wish that they had been more detailed.  I read the book from the library so I may have missed some content. All in all, I’d recommend this book to teens in a heart beat. I’d recommend it for adult readers, too, especially if they were like me and missed teen mystery stories.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology, young adult

Environmental Challenges, Inequality, and Family of Affinity in “Ship Breaker”

[Spoilers]

“Killing always costs.” (“Ship Breaker” 317)

This book review will be of an award-winning, young adult novel, “Ship Breaker,” by Paolo Bacigalupi.  At the beginning of my teaching career, I taught a social problems class. Usually, when I mentioned teaching the class to others, people would respond with comments like “that sounds like a depressing class.” However, I preferred to think of focusing on problems as a step towards finding solutions.  I often hear similar comments about dystopian science fiction books, especially in reference to young adult literature.  And I think a similar view is important.  Dystopian books allow for us to view our society in a new way.

One of my favorite topics in my social problems class  was on the environment and environmental racism.  The first of the videos that I found on the topic via Sociological Cinema, is from the Los Angeles Times on “The Challenge Ahead: Rising Numbers, Shrinking Resources”.  This video has some disturbing images, but it makes many important points about population growth, resource usage, and the future.  On the other hand, “Welcome to the Anthropocene” quickly relates the history of technology that led to the Industrial Revolution through today and also mentions the dangers we face.  Bacigalupi’s fiction is set in futures where we don’t solve all of these problems.

When I read “The Windup Girl” for a book club a couple of years ago, I was blown away.  Bacigalupi created a piece of fiction unlike anything I had ever read before.  The book was set a couple of centuries in the future.  It explored the consequences of social problems  relating to both technologies that we are using irresponsibly today, as well as technologies invented in the future.  For example, people have to deal with the consequences of global warming like massive flooding and huge corporations’ control of the world’s food supply.  Additionally, the windup girl of the title is a genetically modified person who is a slave. After being both delighted and horrified by “The Windup Girl,” I decided to read “Ship Breaker.”

The book is a dystopian young-adult book that won several awards like the Locus award.  The book is set in the future, although it seems much more close to our time than “The Windup Girl.”  The world seems more familiar in some ways, although this might be due to the fact that “The Windup Girl” is set in future Thailand, and “Ship Breaker” is set along the Gulf Coast.  (I grew up visiting parts of the Gulf Coast, so it is more familiar to me.)  The main character, Nailer Lopez, works on a crew that removes light valuables like copper from old, beached oil tankers.  It is extremely dangerous work, and the teams that do the work form tight bonds with the others in their team.  In-group and out-group dynamics are definitely at play here.

However, Nailer is betrayed by a team mate at the beginning of the book because competition for these incredibly low paying jobs is fierce.  Nailer isn’t just in danger from his work; he faces frequent beatings from his father, a ring fighter and drug user.  Eventually, after a hurricane rips through, Nailer and a friend go in search of food.  They find a damaged clipper ship with its young heiress on board. (These ships have impressive new technology that allows them to travel rapidly compared to our ships.)  Nailer decides to help the heiress get back to her family, which is difficult since enemies of her father are stalking her.  The book explores social class tensions, stereotypes in both directions, and other aspects of inequality.

One of my favorite concepts in sociology is family of affinity.  According to Macionis, “[p]eople without legal or blood ties who feel they belong together may identify themselves as families of affinity.”  Nailer realizes through the course of the book that the family that raises you isn’t necessarily “true” family.   For many teens (and adults for that matter) who may suffer abuse at the hands of the family they were raised in, it might give them hope that they can create a family with people who are similar to them.

Returning to my original point on social problems, “Ship Breaker” is an important work for both young adults and others in our society.  It allows us to think of the consequences of many of our unsustainable behaviors today.  If we think competition for resources is fierce now, what will life be like when we have torn through our finite supplies?  Food distribution is a problem now.  What will it be like when we truly outstrip the capacity to feed our people?  We may already be experiencing changes due to global warming.  What will life be like when entire cities are flooded due to the patterns of global climate change?  These are important questions and social problems that I hope that the generations of teens to come will spend time pondering as they further their educations and begin their jobs.  Speculative fiction like Bacigalupi’s can help socialize teens into thinking about how to change our social structures and cultures to help.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, young adult