Young Characters in Literature

Credit: Amor Towles/Penguin Random House

There are many memorable kids and teens in literature, and I’m going to discuss a few of them in a blog post so young it was born on January 29, 2023. 🙂

A terrific non-adult character I most recently encountered is 8-year-old Billy Watson in Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway, which I read and very much enjoyed last week. The precocious Billy is smart, bookish, lovable, and adventurous while navigating a life that sees his 18-year-old brother spend time in prison, his mother abandon the family, his father die, and more. He often acts like a mini-adult yet is still charmingly boyish in certain ways.

Towles is obviously masterful at creating and depicting young people as supporting characters, because he also featured the unforgettable girls Nina and Sofia in his wonderful novel A Gentleman in Moscow that I read last year. They are mother and daughter, but both appear as children in different parts of a book that spans decades.

Then there’s the charming Giuseppe in Elsa Morante’s novel History (he’s the son of a beleaguered single mother in Italy during World War II); the feisty Maggie Tulliver as a girl in the first part of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss; the brainy, studious, ambitious Francie Nolan of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the conflicted teen John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain; the brave teen Starr Carter, whose male friend is murdered by police in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give; the wise-beyond-his-years Ponyboy Curtis of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders; and only child Jody Baxter, who co-stars with a fawn in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 19th-century-set The Yearling.

Taking place WAY before that, in prehistoric times, is Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and its amazing young protagonist Ayla. 

Some fictional young people are so iconic that one doesn’t need to say much about them. They include Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane as a girl in the first part of Jane Eyre, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, Harper Lee’s Scout Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ Pip (Great Expectations) and Oliver Twist, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland-visiting Alice, L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, and Louisa May Alcott’s Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy of Little Women.

Obviously, readers of the novels I mentioned and the many kid-or-teen-starring novels I didn’t mention see plenty of great and sometimes fraught interactions between young siblings, between young friends, and between young people and adults. Readers also might remember their own childhoods, or, if they’re still young themselves, currently relate to the characters — providing that the adult authors make those characters believable and interesting enough!

Also, we’re of course interested in what young people in fiction will be like when they grow up. In those novels that span enough years, we find out. 🙂

Your favorite kids and teens in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — which includes the latest about a proposed redevelopment, an expansion of bus service, and more — is here.

The Unexpected in Fiction

I’ve blogged about surprises in literature before, but I’m going to take a somewhat different angle this time.

It’s a good thing when authors — whether their usual writing approach is formulaic or not — offer the unexpected. That helps keep things fresh for the authors…and the readers.

I thought about this last week while enjoying the latest Jack Reacher thriller — No Plan B by Lee Child and Andrew Child. In many ways the 2022 novel is like the previous 26 Reacher books: justice-minded drifter/ex-military cop Jack doesn’t hesitate to get involved in dangerous situations and wreak havoc on the bad guys (while frequenting unpretentious eateries between the action moments 🙂 ). But among the differences in No Plan B is that there’s no significant romantic interlude for Reacher, who’s had many such interludes over the years. When Jack joins forces with Hannah Hampton (who knew two of the book’s murder victims) to travel from Colorado to a very suspicious Mississippi prison, no sleeping together ensues. It’s friendly, but all business.

Just before No Plan B, I read John Grisham’s 2017 novel The Rooster Bar. It contains many Grisham touches: a legal theme, characters in big trouble, lots of suspense, a strong social conscience, etc. Humor is rarely a big part of the Grisham mix, but in this case there were more funny moments than usual — with things getting close to slapstick at times. Even the title is a pun of sorts.

Of course, authors can also surprise readers by writing in an entirely different genre, as when Grisham came out with the 2012 baseball novel Calico Joe after more than two decades of mostly legal thrillers.

Also in 2012, J.K. Rowling radically switched gears from the magic-filled, fantastical, periodically humorous Harry Potter series she had completed in 2007 to write The Casual Vacancy — a bleak, serious, real-world look at a small town and its politics. Turned out to be pretty compelling. Then Rowling pivoted yet again to create (under the Robert Galbraith alias) the wonderful series of crime novels starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Six of those books so far.

John Steinbeck also kept readers on their toes with a canon that mixed partly comedic efforts (such as Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and CR sequel Sweet Thursday) with earnest classic works (such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent). Steinbeck could be VERY funny when he wanted to be.

Margaret Atwood also changed things up. Mostly known for speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.) and contemporary fiction (Cat’s Eye, etc.), she turned to the past for one book with the historical-fiction novel Alias Grace. Atwood excelled at all three approaches.

Or how about Mark Twain actually focusing on a female character — in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc — after years of fiction concentrating on Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and various other males? Plus he broke his mold by using virtually no humor in the Joan of Arc historical novel.

Getting back to surprises within specific novels, there’s the hilarious devil scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mostly weighty masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.

Then there’s the way some titles of novels throw readers for a bit of a loop when they read the books. For instance, I’m currently midway through the superb The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (who previously wrote 2016’s also-superb A Gentleman in Moscow) and I thought from the title it might be largely a car trip “road novel.” But while there’s some cross-country driving in The Lincoln Highway, a train trip, a stay in New York City, and other elements are also quite important to the plot. More on the 1954-set, 2021-published book in next week’s post.

Examples of the unexpected you’ve experienced in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about local celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and more — is here.

Great Novels Revered Not Sooner But Later

Some notable novels don’t catch on at first — taking years, even MANY years, before getting the respect they deserve. Initial sales and critical reaction can range from poor to so-so, with the reverence not coming until later.

Why? The books might have been “before their time,” controversial, out of “the mainstream,” too challenging, or not marketed well. Or maybe there was no discernible reason for the lack of early thriving — just one of those fluky things. Sometimes, “failed” books get noticed more when the authors write later classics, causing readers to look back at their earlier work. Other times, screen adaptations might bring delayed attention to the novels.

The first title that came to mind for this post — the theme of which was suggested by blogger Endless Weekend in a comment under one of my previous posts — is Moby-Dick. As I’ve discussed before, Herman Melville’s classic bombed with readers and critics when first published in 1851. Too deep? Too metaphysical? Too diverse a crew? Too much minutiae about whales? Other reasons? Anyway, Moby-Dick wasn’t “rediscovered” until nearly 30 years Melville after died, when the 1919 centennial of his birth spurred scholarly interest in the author.

Soon after, in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby was published to generally favorable reviews — but sales were kind of modest. Hard to know why given how good the novel is, and it’s a fairly short work that has the additional selling point of being a pretty quick read. One way strong interest in the novel finally kicked in was when the Council on Books in Wartime gave free copies of Gatsby to American soldiers during World War II — not long after Fitzgerald died in 1940. The novel’s popularity continued to surge from there, and three more Gatsby movies were released in 1949, 1974, and 2013.

Then there was Jane Austen. Sales of her novels — including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma — were okay during her lifetime and soon after her death in 1817 (when Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously). But Austen’s work didn’t explode in popularity until decades later. One thing that helped was 1869’s A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. In our present time, her novels obviously remain widely read, and the subject of various screen adaptations. Why weren’t Austen’s novels not as favored as they should have been two centuries ago? Perhaps one reason is that they were wrongly seen as somewhat “inconsequential” works written by a woman during a very patriarchal era. Hardly inconsequential, of course.

A later-in-the-19th-century author, Alexandre Dumas, saw his compelling Georges novel published in 1843. It wasn’t remotely as popular as his soon-to-come The Count of Monte Cristo (which contains some elements similar to Georges) and The Three Musketeers. One obvious reason is that Georges was the only novel by Dumas that focused on race and racism — with a positive, non-stereotypical protagonist who’s partly Black (as was the author). A revelation during that time. But the long-out-of-print Georges became greatly appreciated in the 21st century — even being reissued by Modern Library in a 2007 edition.

Well, those are just a few examples. Any others you’d like to mention? Any thoughts on the ones I discussed?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a petition against a local over-development and two more harassment accusations against a suspended township manager — is here.

Adaptations That Accrued Appreciably More Acclaim

When writing about the round-number anniversaries of certain novels last week, one title I mentioned was 1973’s The Princess Bride — which is better known for its 1987 movie version (cast pictured above) than for the original William Goldman book of 50 years ago.

Yes, there are screen and theatrical adaptations more famous — in some cases MUCH more famous — than the literary works that inspired them. In fact, many fans of the adaptations might not even know about the existence of the novels or short stories that started it all.

Why? Among the reasons: movie and TV watchers outnumber fiction readers, the adaptations might occasionally be better or at least more “exciting” than the books, etc.

Another prominent example of a film in a different stratosphere than the book is 1994’s blockbuster movie Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks, that was based on Winston Groom’s 1986 novel.

Also VERY different in popularity is 1953’s iconic Shane film vs. Jack Schaefer’s much-less-iconic 1949 novel of the same name.

In the short story realm, Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 tale “The Birds” isn’t nearly as famous as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film — although du Maurier is of course hardly an obscure author.

Not quite as disparate in visibility is 1968’s Charly film based on Daniel Keyes’ 1959 short story (later turned into a novel) Flowers for Algernon, but the movie is more in the public zeitgeist.

Moving to plays, the opened-in-1949 musical South Pacific is at least somewhat more famous than James Michener’s 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific — even as Michener, like du Maurier, is a major name in the world of fiction.

Another musical, the 1955-debuting Damn Yankees, has a significantly higher profile than its inspiration: Douglass Wallop’s 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.

And, last but not least, the long-running musical Wicked — which opened in 2003 and is still going strong — far exceeds Gregory Maguire’s 1995 Wicked novel in renown.

I realize I’m just scratching the surface here. Other examples you’d like to mention? Any thoughts about this phenomenon?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — containing some of my local wishes for 2023 — is here.

Another Roundup of Round-Number Anniversaries

With the New Year here, it’s time for my annual post focusing on some of the novels that will reach round-number anniversaries in the next 12 months.

I’ll work chronologically backwards, starting with 1998-published books turning 25 in 2023. I’ll only mention novels I’ve read, except for two of which I’ve only seen the movie version.

Not sure this qualifies, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was first published in the United States a quarter-century ago, in 1998. That novel initially came out in the United Kingdom the previous year under the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — kicking off J.K. Rowling’s outstanding, wildly popular seven books of wizard world-building. The second novel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, made its page-turning debut everywhere in ’98.

Perhaps the best novel of ’98 was The Poisonwood Bible, about a very problematic American missionary in Africa and his long-suffering/eventually rebelling wife and daughters. Barbara Kingsolver’s masterwork became a Pulitzer Prize finalist, losing out to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and its Virginia Woolf theme. (I haven’t read the latter book but did see 2002’s excellent movie adaptation.)

In the young-adult realm, Louis Sachar’s quirkily great Holes also arrived in 1998.

Some of the novel notables of 1973, a half-century ago? William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (which I also haven’t read but saw 1987’s famous film version) turns 50 this year. As does Sula, a compelling early Toni Morrison effort about a complicated friendship between two quite different girls-then-women.

Also in ’73 was Rita Mae Brown’s pioneering lesbian-themed Rubyfruit Jungle, a great read; and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which became a bestseller with its candid take on (hetero) female sexuality.

My favorite novel from 1923: L.M. Montgomery’s wonderful Emily of New Moon, the first in a semi-autobiographical trilogy. Also turning 100 in 2023 is Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay, a comic novel quite different from his later speculative-fiction classic Brave New World; and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, one of her lesser-known works but still pretty good.

A notable release 150 years ago, in 1873, was The Gilded Age co-written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. Certainly a memorable title, and the portion of the novel Twain wrote is plenty satirical. Also published that year was The Belly of Paris, in which Emile Zola started hitting his stride as a novelist with the story of a wrongly accused man amid the setting of a huge marketplace in France’s capital city.

Two centuries ago, in 1823, saw the release of The Pioneers — the first of James Fenimore Cooper’s top-notch quintet of Leatherstocking novels that would become the fourth book, chronologically, telling Natty Bumppo’s life story.

Also published in 1823 was Quentin Durward, about a Scottish archer in 15th-century France. One of Walter Scott’s best novels even if not as well-known as his Ivanhoe and Rob Roy.

Any comments about the books I mentioned? Other novels you’d like to name with round-number anniversaries this year?

One more thing: Some of this blog’s 2022 statistics are pictured below, including a list of the 12 countries from which posts were viewed the most. Thank you, everyone, for reading my weekly posts and for your MANY terrific comments! 🙂

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about the saving of a historic house and more — is here.