The Encyclopedia Brown Series
If ever there were books that started me on my way to reading it was these. I was raised at a point where there wasn’t a lot of reading material for teens, the YA designation hadn’t been invented yet. I was given a series of classics to read as a child and I remember starting one. Treasure Island for the record is a story of swashbuckling adventure that doesn’t have anything exciting happen till the very end. As for Encyclopedia, I loved these stories; they were part puzzle, part adventure. Each one was delivered in bite size pieces with a solvable mystery. These have had a huge impact on the future of storytelling for me. I hate any story, mystery or otherwise, that has a twist at the end but never gives the audience all of the information to solve it. Encyclopedia Brown always gave you all the clues.
The Incredible Hulk/Thor/West Coast Avengers
I’m including these as one entry because doing three separate ones would probably be considered cheating and what I learned about storytelling comes from the comparison of the three. As I grew older and wanted more form my stories I turned to comic books. I tried several different ones, other companies and heroes but these three ended up being my go to heroes. Each had its own take on how story telling worked and functioned under the guise of being silly little stories for kids.
The Hulk was a tragic figure trapped in an unwinable situation. Persecuted for being an out of control monster he managed to function of a very basic level as a hero, he reacted on gut level instinct and a need to protect his friends. His greatest desire was either to be left alone when he was the Hulk, or to find a cure for his condition when he was Bruce Banner. In both forms he fought to control his anger and keep his friends safe.
Thor had the distinction of being on of the very few superheroes who liked being a superhero. The three big heroes at the time all had issues: Spider-man was sad all the time about how hard it was to do the right thing and how much he had to sacrifice to be a hero, Batman was a dark depressing mess who lurked in the shadows and grieved for the loss of his childhood while battling inner demons that drove him to be the best, and Superman was a preachy boy scout who spent all of his time lecturing everyone on the right thing to do. Thor was happy to get to fight someone, the bigger and more powerful his opponent the more excited he got. When giants attacked New York he would laugh as he went off to stop them.
The West Coast Avengers was a team of misfits and second string heroes who were relegated to being the other Avenger team. They all had problems and failings and yet still managed to come together to learn how to work as a team. They didn’t always get along but they always stood up for one another. The powered through alien invasions, kidnapped children, and banishment to hell. They faced people far more powerful than themselves and managed by the skin of their teeth to squeak out a victory against all odds.
Even with this these books showed me more in storytelling than almost anything else. I got to see complicated character development and motivations. I got to watch Loki, at the time Thor’s greatest enemy, stand side by side with his brother to defend Asgard from a demon invasion because it was his home too. I watched as the Vision and Scarlet Witch lost their new born twins to a demon lord and how it nearly destroyed them. I watched the heart wrenching moment when the Hulk hugs Betty Banner after she says she’s pregnant.
Certainly over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the daily struggle that Spider-man goes through to protect those around him. How Batman chooses to train different young people as Robin specifically so they grow up and become him. How Superman lives everyday of his life struggling against himself, knowing that if he makes the tiniest mistake turning a corner, opening a door, or patting someone on the back that he will destroy them. I will forever remember the quote, “I live in a world made of cardboard.”
More than anything I think comic books formed my opinion of story telling.
A Spell for Chameleon
This fantasy novel by Piers Anthony was probably my first foray into modern novels. I remember being in love with how the story unfolded in such a way to give me every piece of information that I would need to finish the tale and yet never leave me as if I didn’t know what was going on. I got to see the bitter power struggles of people who fought to save themselves for their own reasons and see how a man could be both a hero and a villain. It set me off on a long journey as I delved into all of these stories and kept then spread out into other novels by the author.
Disk world (all of them)
I fell into these in high school, introduced by a friend. I immediately fell in love with this lengthy series of high fantasy books that took traditional narratives and rolled them on their heads. The very premise of the series was one the set my mind on fire. In an infinite universe there are infinite possibilities, therefore there must exist a flat world that travels through the universe on the back of four giant elephants that are in turn standing on the back of a giant tortoise. Each of the stories is a unique and inventive story that follows the rules of the genre it’s a part of while at the same time pointing out the flaws and foibles of those rules. In one book a chase through mountains ended when the villains horse drawn coach went out of control and sailed off a cliff. Then, because this is how things work, the coach exploded and a flaming wheel rolled down the road. It is also a master class of writing, one of the books, Guards Guards, begins with a scene in which seven unnamed characters all dressed in hooded robes have a conversation and because of the unique vice given to each character you can keep track of who is talking all the way through it.
Storm Front & The Dresden Files
As a fan of Buffy the Vampire slayer and most everything else Joss Whedon has done this series of hard boiled detective novels about a wizard living in Chicago were and instant hit with me. The series followed all the tropes of modern fantasy and noir fiction in a way I had never seen before. The series that the book spawned gave us a hero who stands up to evil no matter how badly he’s outnumbered and manages to survive by dint of luck and exceptional amounts of support. The series is also unique to some in that Harry and all of the other characters grow and evolve as the story goes on. They learn from their mistakes, reuse old tricks, and have legitimate problems and reconciliations. It’s a series that keeps giving me more and more amazing amounts of things to love.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone & the continuing series
This would be the first modern YA novel I read and I did so begrudgingly. I felt that as a YA novel it was most likely not going to be any kind of challenging story or have any sort of surprise or merit for me as a reader. While I enjoyed some of the humor, and felt several of the characters were decent I was unimpressed for most of my first read of the book. I knew how children’s entertainment worked and because of that I was immediately able to identify the villain. (Spoilers, though honestly I‘m not sure it‘s necessary at this point) As Harry approached the final room I knew full good and well he would find Professor Snape on the other side of the door. When it turned out to be Quirrell I was floored, the fact that they were then able to go through and tell me exactly what clues I had missed I was sold. The fact that the ensuing books were able to continue to keep me guessing and find new ways to fool me was a testament to their quality. It also set me on a new avenue of reading. Since then I have viewed YA as source of very stellar stories with a solid edge.
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