Last night I finished the second of the Margaret Peterson Haddix Shadow Children series. Between them, Among the Hidden and Among the Impostors measure up to the word count and time investment of about one Hunger Games or Percy Jackson novel. Still, they’re good reading, with a believable what-if near-future setting, a sympathetic and complex lead character in Luke Garner, and a structure, so far, of one new person to trust and lose in each book.
Luke Garner is actually pretty likeable. He reminds me the most, recently, of Carl Hiaasen’s lead character in Hoot. The problem with both is that they’re a bit too “everyboy.” Hiaasen’s character – I read Hoot two weeks ago – is already anonymous to me. The story stands out because I like the situations he gets into, and the supporting characters are pretty interesting. Officer Delinko is probably the best developed, and as he started out the Scarecrow of Oz (“If I only had a brain!”), any changes in his character were almost bound to be for the better.
Hiaasen is well known as a talented writer, and I enjoyed the book a lot, but it’s funny how the main character doesn’t actually change much, and only the villain, Dana, and the inept adult character, Officer Delinko, either change or retain their memories in my mind a month after reading. I bet it’s not Hiaasen’s fault – I have a pretty spotty memory. The real point for me, as a wannabe Hiaasen, is that the book was enjoyable, but not especially gripping or moving, and since that is what I want to write, I want to observe the differences.
Let me try a list of them. In the sort of YA adventure/fantasy I enjoy most and want to write,
- The protagonist is treated with gross unfairness (a la Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, or Frodo Baggins).
The reader shares the protagonist’s emotional commitment to outcomes in the book.
- The stakes are high – not just social but vital. (This corners me in the adventure-fantasy genre, I suppose).
- The protagonist experiences increasing setbacks, self-doubt, and danger throughout the book.
- The protagonist cannot escape his or her circumstances except by confronting the dangers as they mount.
- The protagonist has a special skill or strength that allows her or him to overcome, but it is not sufficient.
- The protagonist survives, but loses something important.
Luke Garner is partway toward this ideal. Haddix paints him convincingly into a corner, and then teases us into thinking he’ll get out, only landing him from the mixed-metaphor-proverbial fire. I guess the frying pan was in the corner, or something like that. Whatever the semantics, we follow Lee from bad to worse, to tantalizingly hopeful, to the depths of despair, and a faint but costly glimmer of hope, all in 150 YA (that is to say, short) pages.
I also just read and really enjoyed Jeanne duPrau's City of Ember. It's so calm compared to the Hunger Games, that I almost didn't think I was enjoying it. What a strange feeling! Every page was satisfying to read, and the characters of Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow are really sympathetic. Maybe it was just my reading, but I felt so much less tension than when reading these other books.
There's also the problem of having seen the very good movie adaptation before reading the book. Does anybody else feel this way?